The closest you can ever get to visiting Tbilisi British Cemetery is by knocking, politely, on the door of a Georgian family home, and being guided through to their back garden.
The cemetery itself no longer exists. All that remains is a marker in this garden, installed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 2000, to record where it is believed the cemetery once stood.
Shortly after the First World War this is where 31 men’s stories ended. They were far from home, here to occupy the country on behalf of the Allied Powers while the post-war map of the world was still being drafted.
The original grave markers have all been lost to time. Access to Georgia after 1919 was impossible for the Commission due to Communist rule.
While a small group of remaining British ex-pats helped tend to the cemetery into the 1930s, the Second World War and then the Cold War made it too challenging to sustain.
CWGC was stuck at an arm’s length until well after the fall of the Iron Curtain. By the time we returned we were faced with the sprawling suburbs of Tbilisi, where there had once been an isolated cemetery.
In the interim we had not forgotten those men and their names were engraved on the Haida Pasha Memorial in Istanbul.
Despite being 800 miles away from Tbilisi it was the nearest place where CWGC could guarantee long-term continued access. The shifting borders and political instability caused by the World Wars impacted our global task long after the conflicts ended.
While world events have left us with this odd legacy of making a pilgrimage to a family garden, it’s not just the Commission’s team who visit this home. Dignitaries and relatives return every Remembrance Sunday to pay their respects after knocking, politely of course, on this Georgian family’s garage door.
Ireland is a delicate place to work for an organisation that calls on people to look back on their history.
Even just half a generation ago, we would not have received the strength of goodwill that we do today. On our new regional manager’s first weekend in post he was invited to a Remembrance Sunday commemoration ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
There he heard a poignant and powerful speech by the President of the Irish Republic Michael D. Higgins calling for all victims of the World Wars to be commemorated and remembered.
As with elsewhere, the work at hand here is about preserving a slice of heritage and allowing simple acts of individual remembrance.
Our commitment here is sparse, but no less important for it. Around a fifth of the war graves in the Republic of Ireland alone are in the grounds of churches which have since closed, become heritage sites or have found alternative use.
Some, like Colmcille’s Graveyard in County Kilkenny, are over a kilometre away from the nearest road. The only access takes you through muddy tracks and horse fields, making any visit feel like a voyage of discovery.
The day to day maintenance in the Republic of Ireland is done on the Commission’s behalf by the Office of Public Works with whom we have been in partnership with for many decades. Without the need for gardening staff we have only one employee permanently based there.
It’s Malcolm Ross’s job to inspect the work and, more importantly, maintain and build the hundreds of local relationships that have kept our 5,500 war graves in order, across more than 1,000 locations.
“If the topic comes up when I meet someone new, I make it clear I’m not here to talk politics or religion, we have one job to do and I always open conversations with the simple task at hand.”
Malcolm then needs to deal with the sheer variety that comes from being our one man on the island.
“One day I can be hiking around muddy fields, talking to farmers and trying to find a remote headstone in rural Offaly, the next I’m at a black-tie reception in central Dublin greeting ambassadors and defence attaches.”
Reaching the long-abandoned Colmcille’s Graveyard is typical of the rural spots where you can find war graves here.
There are civilian graves, many showing the family names of the local village, which can be centuries old, carved in distinctive local stone. And among them, mostly made of Irish Blue limestone, are the war graves, our permanent reminders of the war dead.
The history and politics of who and how they fought may remain a delicate matter, but their names are far from forgotten.
Just getting to work is a real challenge for one of our Cyprus-based teams.
The cemetery in question is less than an hour from our Mediterranean head office and sits just on the outskirts of the country’s capital.
The difficulty comes from the important invisible lines that surround Nicosia War Cemetery, or Wayne’s Keep as it’s often known.
Since the 1970s the disputed border between the southern and northern parts of the island has run right across the cemetery.
One side believes it sits in the buffer zone, the other, that it sits firmly inside their territory.
In places, the buffer zone is so untouched by human influence that species thought long extinct have been spotted.
Throughout half a century of land disputes, the Commission’s commitment has been difficult but not impossible to fulfil. Within this sliver of no man’s land, we are tasked with maintaining the graves of more than 200 Second World War dead and a series of memorials.
Next to them are close to 600 British military dead, servicemen stationed on the island after the War when it was still part of the British Empire or as part of the United Nations task force deployed to enforce the uneasy peace between north and south. CWGC continues to take responsibility for their graves on behalf of the MOD.
To undertake even the most minor of work to the various sections of this cemetery, staff and contractors must gain special permission and be accompanied by a UN escort. Armed guards on the northern side are always present.
Surely there are few other gardeners in the world who mow the lawn under such watchful eyes.
As tensions rise and fall CWGC’s work continues to get caught in the mix. On more than one occasion people have been asked to leave the site by armed guards. For those living on the island, the presence of the border and the buffer zone is a part of daily life. We are in no position to challenge or question the wider situation.
Instead, we must continue to work peacefully with all involved to ensure those buried in the crosshairs of today’s dispute are not forgotten.
Nowhere else in the UK is the challenge of access to war graves more obvious than in the Scottish Highlands and islands.
CWGC’s Scotland team often combine their commute with ferries and planes as they seek out isolated graveyards, far from the mainland. A bicycle can be an essential piece of kit when arriving on an island without cars to inspect remote headstones.
The dead they look after include islanders who served and returned, only to die of injury or illness. Many are pilots or seamen who died in accidents or whose bodies were washed ashore, far from home.
Maintenance trips are constantly rescheduled around narrow weather windows when it’s unsafe to land on small remote islands, like Fair Isle, where just a handful of war graves lie.
The Commission’s traditional Portland stone will hardly be found here. Granite is one of the few substances that stands a chance of surviving the climate.
The challenge isn’t new – archive documents from 1945 show one former employee’s concerns that the vast spread was too much to handle.
His preferred solution: an island-hopping gardener, equipped with a motorbike and a lawnmower in a sidecar.
The difficulties in Scotland come high up in the mountains too.
Three miles from the nearest road and more than two thousand feet above the nearest village, lies the isolated grave of six airmen.
They are buried on a rocky plateau near the summit of Ben More Assynt, 20 miles north-east of Ullapool.
All of them died in April 1941 after their plane crashed. When their bodies were later found by a local shepherd, he buried them together using parts of their destroyed plane for a make-shift cross.
By 1944 the Commission had arranged for a temporary memorial cairn to be erected above the graves. It was unthinkable at the time to install anything more permanent in such a place.
To give families somewhere to mourn, a special memorial was placed by the Commission in the nearest village of Inchnadamph. A slowly growing pile of stones, added to by the odd passing walker, was all that remained up on the high mountain slopes.
And that would have been where the story ended.
Until in 2010, when a local mountain guide approached us. He had heard concerns the exact location of the crash site could get lost to time.
And so, with the help of the MOD, a 600kg special CWGC granite marker was lowered into place by helicopter – possibly the most remote war grave in all of the UK.